On any given day in New York’s Union Square, one might find a variety of exhibitionists: skateboarders practicing their kickflips, punk rockers riding impossibly tall bicycles, armor-clad “knights” battling with broadswords (They call themselves the Society for Creative Anachronism). If there weren’t already enough hindrances to the harried pedestrian, now snowboarders have joined the fray. The other night they flaunted their own creative anachronism: the “rail jam.” A makeshift stairwell with multiple banisters was erected on scaffolding in the square, then covered with snow (Since there is no snow in the city, ten tons were trucked in for the event). The snowboarders competed to find the most creative ways to slide down the hand railings.
If sports are judged for their “naturalism” (See Emily Richards’s naturalism scale in this magazine), rail jam gets a low score. I suppose, if hard-pressed, we can imagine someone snowboarding around Toronto or Buffalo or some other frozen metropolis and happening on some stairs and quite naturally riding toward them, switch, leaping up, twisting a hundred-and-eighty degrees, skidding three feet along the frozen railing, then landing safely below. But rail jam is really a borrowed pursuit. Skateboarders began making imaginative use of urban spaces in the 1970s and eventually found themselves sliding across the rails and curbs in front of libraries and post offices. When snowboarding took off in the 90s, it mimicked every skateboarding venue including the half-pipe (derived from the swimming pool) and the railing. Now street-style snowboard events are held throughout the country, even in sunbelt cities like Las Vegas and San Diego. Fake urban environments are temporarily built within real urban environments, and stairwells are freed from their pedestrian context and catapulted into the realm of competitive sports-entertainment.
Despite the bitter cold, hundreds of New Yorkers turned out for the event. Floodlights gave the whole place the feeling of a movie set. A soundtrack issued from a stage beside the snowy stairs. The music, like the sport, was an exercise in decontextualization: Pop songs from the 80s and 90s were remixed with dance beats and samples from different songs and eras. The Cars melted into the Outfield. “I don’t want to lose your love tonight,” a woman next to me sang along. Her “lose” turned into an “ooh” as a snowboarder tumbled onto his back.
The promoters said the two-story-tall structure was the largest “custom urban rail” ever built in New York City, but it didn’t seem to give the riders much room. From the top they had only a few feet to slide before they leapt onto one of the rails, then leapt off to a small landing area. The bottom was out of view for most spectators, so it was impossible to see if the tricks were landed safely. Each ride took only two or three seconds, then another competitor would go. It became difficult as well to differentiate the snowboarders, and as the music pounded, the whole thing seemed more like an experimental dance than a contest.
The crowd, a predictably young cross-section of city-folk, sported all kinds of hats. Besides the simple knit hats, the plain black skull caps, the Elmer Fudds, the Russian fur hats, the baseball caps splattered with graffiti and worn on an angle, there was another subset that might be called “custom urban caps.” Mostly with short bills, they resembled Mao hats, engineers’ caps, or beanies, retooled in wool or in some synthetic fabric. They seemed to have been made specifically for a snowboard competition in Union Square.
As the competition continued, a young man behind me in tan cable-knit urban cap said to his friend in a deconstructed white ski coat: “Dude, this is not that bad of a rail. It’s easy to get up on. It’s straight. There are no kinks.”
His friend asked, “Did you see those things on the sides?”
“You mean the stairs?”
Between the rounds of competition, the crowd was suddenly energized. I was hit with a swiveling backpack before I realized the promoters were throwing prizes. Two men with microphones stood at the top of the stairwell, shouting like carnival barkers. “Who wants a new helmet?” they said. “Who wants a blue tooth headset? I can’t hear you. You’re not loud enough.”
A well-groomed man in his forties, wearing a chic North Face parka, caught one of the prizes. “A t-shirt,” he said. “Burton snowboards. It’s pink.” He showed it to his friend. “I don’t like the logo. It’s not going to work for me.”
Objects continued flying into the crowd. “Is that cardboard?” someone shouted as mysterious brown rectangles whizzed by. “I think it is cardboard,” someone else said. With undiminished enthusiasm, a hat-less young woman yelled to her date, “Get me a piece of cardboard!”
Meanwhile one of the barkers introduced the finalists. “We’re gonna present you with the six finest athletes at the final of the Union Square Street Session,” he said, and then added with rhythmic ease, “brought to you by Jeep, Killington, Fuse, Plantronics, Snowboarder Magazine, Mountain Creek, and Burton snowboards.”
“Yo, what up, Barnes & Noble!” the other shouted. The whole crowd turned to look across the street. The huge, arched windows of the four-story bookstore were all lined with people watching the show from above. The snowboarders resumed their competition, each leaping up onto the rail then disappearing into the crowd. A spectator, still looking up at Barnes & Noble, said, “We should have gone in there to watch.”